Anyone familiar with Greek mythology knows it doesn’t turn out so well for Narcissus. So transfixed with his own beauty, Narcissus died staring at his reflection in a pond. Of course this is where we get the term narcissism, a personality disorder seeping into the cracks of every corner of society. It may not have always been this way, but it’s important to examine the cultural drivers running compassion and regard off the road.
As I’ve written about narcissism before, the behavior is defined as a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.
One can imagine the kinds of problems this can cause in many areas of life. Individuals who experience narcissistic personality disorder may feel generally unhappy and disappointed when they are not given the special favors or admiration they believe they deserve. Others may not enjoy being around people with this type of personality disorder. And when communication breaks down in relationships, this can exacerbate the issue.
But how does one move from positive regard for others to an inflated sense of self? The obvious drivers are money and status, two sources that can feed the human ego with reckless abandon. Another prominent influencer, as evidenced in the #metoo movement, is power dynamics. An individual with a puffed up ego and the power to back it gives narcissism a nitro boost with little to stop it.
The first step to breaking down the walls of narcissism is by recognizing the behavior. According to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, here are signs of developing narcissistic personality disorder:
- Demonstrate an exaggerated sense of self-importance – “It’s all about me” or “I am the best”
- Expect special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations – “You must do this now”
- Take advantage of others to get what you want – “Do what I say or else”
- Have an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others (i.e. lack of empathy)
- Feel envious of others and believe others envy you
- Behave in an arrogant or haughty manner
- Expect to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it – “I deserve this”
- Exaggerate your achievements and talents – “ I am a super power”
- Dwell on fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
Another danger of narcissistic personality disorder – beyond an inflated ego – is that it can develop into or fuel other personality disorders, which complicate matters further. At the heart of this is attachment theory, a framework for understanding how humans interact in the world through friendships, relationships and family dynamics. There are four types of attachment:
- Positive view of self and others
- Independent, secure and trusting
- Comfortable with emotional intimacy and closeness
- Positive view of self with a negative view of others
- Independent and self-reliant
- Difficult to get close with others – puts up walls
- Leaves or avoids during conflict
- Negative view of self with a positive view of others
- Fear of losing relationships; clingy
- Emotional highs and lows; may get aggressive
- Negative view of self and others
- Seeks and avoids closeness
- Fearful of making attachments
- Can be self-harming or abusive
When attachment theory plays out in human interactions, narcissism can play a central role in the way these relationships develop. It’s important to look for the signs and seek out help if you or a loved one experiences these kinds of behaviors.
A prime example of narcissism’s choke hold on society at the moment is playing out in Silicon Valley. In Emily Chang’s new book, Brotopia, titans of tech are reportedly throwing orgiastic parties overflowing with drugs and young women. And “while the guys get laid [and] the women get screwed,” a hedonistic spirit takes over and the similar power structures at the heart of “Me Too” take hold.
According to the new book, corroborated by nearly two dozen people who have attended these events, the hot shots who host these parties talk them up without shame or discretion. Quite the opposite actually, the behavior “at these high-end parties is an extension of the progressiveness and open-mindedness that makes founders think they can change the world. And they believe that their entitlement to disrupt doesn’t stop at technology; it extends to society as well,” writes Chang.
Where does this entitlement come from? I’ve previously written about entitlement — top executives, actors, celebrities and sports stars who have amassed influence and fame and feel that they deserve their latest want. This opens the doors to rampant process disorders (i.e. gambling, sex, money) and addiction because the power structures in place do little to stop it. And now a similar entitlement has seeped into tech founders and company leaders, but perhaps in a bigger way.
The reason lies in the very nature of tech companies and the wider influence these products, apps and social networks have on the world. The founder of a tech company, interviewed for the Vanity Fair article, put it this way: “we have more cachet than a random rich dude because we make products that touch a lot of people. You make a movie, and people watch it for a weekend. You make a product, and it touches people’s lives for years.” As such, actors like Leonardo DiCaprio, Ashton Kutcher and Jared Leto, eager to get a slice of the tech boom pie, have made personal investments in tech companies. I guess tech money even overshadows winning an Oscar.
The attitude tech founders have about their impact on the world may explain the sexism many women feel in these situations. For instance, the attendees to these lavish parties are disproportionately young women. But that’s no accident. The men at these parties want more women there so they have more to choose from. And if you’re not invited to one of these parties, plenty of women interviewed said they may be missing out on career opportunities because attendees talk business. So it’s a lose-lose for those who aren’t wealthy top brass and founders.
Still, there is plenty of criticism for the notion that the powerful men at these parties are disruptors and innovators. “That’s exploitation. That’s old-school masculine arrogance and borderline prostitution,” says Elisabeth Sheff, a writer and professor who researches open relationships. “It’s trying to blend the new and keeping the old attitudes, and those old attitudes are based in patriarchy, so they come at the expense of women.”
When researching for this article, I was reminded of my piece about the highly addictive drug meth making its way into Silicon Valley inner circles. In similar ways, drugs are used at these parties as a way of removing inhibitions and facilitating sexual activity. Indeed, the look and feel of these parties is a brotopia fit for a college student. Only these attendees are grown adults.
As a trusted clinician, and addiction and mental health practitioner who specializes in interventions, who has worked with countless clients and their families over the years, I bring hope and healing to situations where narcissistic behavior has taken its toll. If you recognize any of the above traits in you or a loved one, contact me for detailed ways to find change for a brighter future.
Dr. Louise Stanger founded All About Interventions because she
is passionate about helping families whose loved ones experience substance abuse, mental health, process addictions and chronic pain. She is committed to showing up for her clients and facilitating lasting change so families are free from sleepless, worrisome nights. Additionally, she speaks about these topics all around the country, trains staff at many treatment centers, and develops original family programs. To learn more, watch this video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=hDf5262P7I8 and visit her website at allaboutinterventions.com.
Roger graduated with two degrees from the University of Texas at Austin. He works in the entertainment industry and writes for film and television.